By: Julie Carrie Wong, The Guardian
The Google campus in Mountain View, California.
Google has spent much of the past 72 hours insisting its commitment to diversity is “unequivocal” after the internal publication and subsequent leak of an anti-diversity polemic by a Google engineer. The unidentified software engineer argued, among other things, that biological differences between men and women account for the extreme gender imbalance at Google and other technology companies.
“We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company,” said Danielle Brown, Google’s vice-president of diversity, integrity and governance.
“Building an open, inclusive environment is core to who we are, and the right thing to do,” added Ari Balogh, the company’s vice-president of engineering, “‘Nuff said.”
Google might prefer the discussion to end there, but the reality is there is a lot more to say about the company’s commitment to diversity.
The public relations blitz may be a corporate necessity given the virulent backlash against the document by many of Google’s own employees. On Monday night, Bloomberg reported that the engineer said he had been fired; Google declined to comment on individual employee cases.
But public commitments to diversity from Google executives do not tally with the company’s workforce data.
Google’s workforce is, by its own accounting, 69% male and just 2% African American. Just 20% of technical jobs are held by women. Google may be unequivocal in its “belief” about diversity, but the figures make its shortcomings clear. The company tends to hire white and Asian men over women and other racial minorities.
Lack of diversity in Silicon Valley is an old story. Eighteen years ago, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson first launched a campaign to encourage the region’s tech companies to hire black and Latino workers. At the time, he was accused of “terrorism” by Scott McNealy, the co-founder of early Silicon Valley giant Sun Microsystems.
Tech leaders may have changed their tune in the intervening decades – all the top CEOs today loudly proclaim a commitment to “diversity and inclusion” – but in other ways not much has changed in almost two decades.
McNealy, now the chairman of a digital marketing startup, stands by his statements on Jackson, though he concedes that “terrorism” might have been an overstatement. “Probably the right word is blackmail,” he told the Guardian. “I just don’t have time for race baiters. Stop baiting me.”
Google is the subject of an investigation by the US Department of Labor, which has accused the technology corporation of systematically discriminating against women (the company denies the charge.) Much of Uber’s top tier of executives has left the company amid complaints of systematic sexual harassment and gender discrimination. And the tech industry has lately been shaken by allegations that high-profile venture capitalists have abused their position to prey on female startup entrepreneurs.
Meanwhile, the representation of black, Latino, and female employees at top Silicon Valley technology firms remains so disproportionately low that a government report published last year described the problem with the same word that Jackson uses: “segregation”. For all its forward looking technologies, Silicon Valley is in many ways mired in the ugliest practices of the American past.
A tale of two tech cities
Picture a technology hub where more than 17% of high-tech workers – from programmers to security analysts to software and web developers – are African American.
This isn’t some kind of utopian diversity thought experiment. It is the greater Washington DC metropolitan area, home to more than 200,000 high tech jobs, many of them with the federal government or government contractors.
“You’d be hard pressed to have someone out here who thinks that blacks doing computer work is weird,” said William Spriggs, a professor of economics at Howard University. And lest you think that the computing in DC is less advanced than that in Silicon Valley, he adds: “We don’t do Mickey Mouse stuff out here. This is the number one place if you want to do cyber security.”
The DC area is a kind of mirror image to Silicon Valley when it comes to hiring African Americans. Overall, blacks make up 14.4% of the workforce nationwide and 7.4% of high-tech employment. In the DC metro area, which includes parts of Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia, blacks hold 17.3% of the jobs in 12 computing occupations, according to government employment data.
But cross over to the west coast, and in Silicon Valley African Americans hold just 2.7% of the jobs in the same categories. At premiere employers like Google and Facebook, black representation in technical jobs drops below 2%.
To Spriggs, there is simply no excuse for Silicon Valley’s failure to hire a more diverse workforce. “The thing that always irritates me is that they say, ‘We can’t find them,’” he said. “You run a freaking search engine!”
So how did Silicon Valley end up with fewer than 5,000 black people in highly technical jobs, while DC has more than 35,000?
One obvious difference between northern California and the mid-Atlantic region is the underlying demographics. The DC metro area is approximately 25% black, while Silicon Valley is about 6.5% black.
But companies like Google, Facebook and Apple are known to recruit aggressively across the country – and throughout the world. And the fact that northern California’s workforce is heavily Latino (more than 20%) is not reflected in the area’s tech companies (about 6% Latino).
Spriggs argued that a significant difference is that in DC, the tech industry grew up around the federal government. Affirmative action provisions for federal contracting encouraged African Americans to start businesses in computing or data processing in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first domain name registrar for the internet, for example, was the black-owned company, Network Solutions, which was founded in northern Virginia in 1979.
“Having black-owned companies helped get people in,” Spriggs said. “It’s partly entrepreneurship, partly because the federal government does not discriminate, partly because you have to have [security] clearance, which favors American citizens, and partly because the area is heavily black.”
Schools in the region focused on preparing their students for technology jobs with government contractors as well.